Decoding the Declaration of Independence

Today marks the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  By lucky coincidence my weekly article falls on this auspicious holiday.  This to me is a perfect opportunity to discuss our most seminal document in detail, something that very  seldom takes place in schools and colleges any longer.

As you can see from the opening statement, Thomas Jefferson based the entire document on Natural Law, in which he was a great believer, having studied John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government in great detail. 

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Natural Law is just as a essential today as it was back when the Declaration of Independence was written, yet thanks to our abysmal education system few today can properly define it.  The website All About Philosophy provides a definition of Natural Law that is missing one key component which is central to the meaning as understood by Thomas Jefferson and the rest of this nation’s founding fathers,

In the end, where does law come from? The Theory of Natural Law maintains that certain moral laws transcend time, culture, and government. There are universal standards that apply to all mankind throughout all time. These universal moral standards are inherent in and discoverable by all of us, and form the basis of a just society.

The nature of the missing element will become more clear in this quote from the Declaration of Independence, the quote is the one I believe to be the most important.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;

As you can see from the opening statement of the Declaration of Independence Natural Law was believed to be God’s Law.  At the time of the writing of the Declaration it was common to refer to God as nature’s God.  The belief that God created every individual equal and endowed each and every individual with our most important rights are two of the most fundamental concepts of that document. 

Liberty is the third most important concept contained in the Declaration of Independence.   A careful study of the writings of those who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights will show just how crucial that right was to those governing documents of the United States.  Liberty was defined by our founding fathers as the freedom to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt others or interfere with the rights of others.  It is freedom with the responsibility to do no harm to others,

The next statement fro the Declaration is vitally important because it sates quite clearly that everyone has the right to overthrow an unjust government.  That concept is also based on Natural Law.

that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

The next statement is an admonishment that overthrowing a government is something to undertake only when circumstances very dire and warrant it.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

The final quote from the Declaration of Independence that I will share for this article is a statement that colonists did in fact have proper cause to declare independence from Great Britain.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.